The rural dilemma: how to restart tourism and reassure residents


As Wales seeks to navigate a safe path out of the coronavirus lockdown, one of the biggest challenges for the Welsh Government is how to re-open the rural economy whilst avoiding a surge of new cases in the countryside and panicking an anxious rural population. First Minister Mark Drakeford has signaled that restrictions on the tourism industry could be lifted in July, noting that “communities who have seen very few visitors will have to be prepared to see visitors again”. But what does this mean in practice, and is rural Wales ready?

There is mounting evidence that rural areas in Wales and elsewhere are being hit the hardest by the economic consequences of COVID-19. Research that WISERD at Aberystwyth University has been undertaking with the Welsh Local Government Association as part of the Horizon 2020 ROBUST project has documented impacts that spread across the breadth of the rural economy. In Wales, a greater proportion of the workforce has been furloughed in rural counties than in urban counties – around 30 per cent in Ceredigion, Conwy, Pembrokeshire and Powys, compared with the national average of 25 percent. Whilst the return to work for many offices, factories and retail outlets is starting to reanimate towns and cities, the nature of the rural economy means that restarting business is likely to be a much slower process.

Inevitably, it has been the tourism sector that has been the worst affected. Tourism generates £6.3 billion each year for the Welsh economy, much of that in rural areas. Over 70 per cent of employees in the tourism sector in Wales have been furloughed and individual tourism businesses have experienced falls in income of up to 80 per cent, with the median drop around 20 per cent. For many in the tourism sector the continuation of restrictions into the summer could be terminal, with a Welsh Government survey finding that a quarter would not have sufficient cashflow to survive for a further three months without re-opening. Analysis by the RSA suggests that one in three tourism jobs in Conwy and Pembrokeshire could be at risk.

Yet, the major obstacle to reopening the rural economy and welcoming back tourists is the apprehension of rural residents themselves. Such anxieties are understandable. Rural counties of Wales have recorded much lower incidence of COVID-19 than urban districts – 3.91 cases per 1,000 people in rural counties compared with 5.21 cases per 1,000 people in urban counties. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveal that across England and Wales as a whole, the death rate from COVID-19 in the most rural areas is five times lower than in the most urban.

As the transmission of the coronavirus relies largely on close contact between individuals, the sparser population density of rural areas and lower concentration of people in workplaces and on public transport hinders the progression of the pandemic. This ‘natural rural distancing’, as a senior consultant in the Hywel Dda Health Board has labelled it, means that large parts of rural Wales have been relatively unscathed. ONS data shows that there are 16 census areas in rural Wales where no deaths from COVID-19 had been recorded up to 31 May, including popular tourist destinations such as Aberystwyth, Barmouth, Borth, Dolgellau, Narbeth and New Quay. Yet, the 2 Sisters meat plant outbreak in Anglesey (with over 200 confirmed cases) and a slight increase in new confirmed cases in Ceredigion this month should caution against complacency.

Furthermore, there is anecdotal evidence that the perceptions of some rural residents may be informed by memories of the Foot and Mouth epidemic livestock in 2001, when footpaths were closed and car tyres washed with disinfectant to stop the disease spread. Together these factors mean that there continues to be heightened sensitivities around the prospect of visitors coming into rural communities. A failure to reassure rural populations could lead to a backlash from residents, tensions within communities and the reappearance of ‘tourists stay away’ signs as seen in March.

So, how might this dilemma be resolved?

First, there should be a managed process of restarting tourism, using pre-booking for popular attractions, car parks and beaches where feasible, and more broadly monitoring visitor numbers and seeking to avoid over-crowding by Visit Wales, national parks and local authorities working to promote less well-known locations.

Second, attention should be paid to the places where visitors come into contact with local communities and the people who work there – for instance, ice cream sellers, waiters, filling station attendants. These are the points of vulnerability for virus transmission into rural populations. They need to be provided with appropriate PPE and prioritized for testing, with contact tracing systems ready to quickly follow up any suspected cases in this cohort to form a firewall between tourists and rural communities.

Third, re-starting tourism needs to be accompanied by a campaign to reassure the rural population. There should be direct engagement by the Welsh Government with people living in rural areas to explain exactly what the risks are and how they are mitigated, as well as crucially what tourist activities are low risk and why, and to listen to concerns and answer questions. Intermediaries such as local councillors, community councils and farming unions could help as conduits for information in both directions, asking questions and passing on answers, and might be engaged through video meetings or webinars.

Adopting these measures could help to resolve the rural dilemma, reopening the rural economy whilst keeping rural residents safe.

Note: Public Health Wales data on COVID-19 cases is for 22 June 2020. ONS data is for the period to 31 May 2020.

This research has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 727988 ROBUST. This blog post reflects only the author’s view. The Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains. Thanks to Helen Howells for collating some of the evidenced discussed here.

Image: Llandudno; Chris; Flickr – reproduced under Creative Commons licence.